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The Primer- Games on Games

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The Primer- Games on Games

[The Primer is a new monthly feature  meant to tie in with our monthly theme question. Every month, we’ll put together a short list of games related to the theme question that we think are worth your time. Hopefully, you will too.]

“What is a video game” is a pretty big question. It’s open ended, and has a lot of answers. So we want to give a little bit of a reference point. Some games you can anchor yourself to as we think about why we define games, and what those definitions mean. Some of them are rooted in “gaminess” while some are about expanding what you might consider to be a game. Either way, here a few games you might want to check out.

Animal Crossing: New Leaf:

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Animal Crossing is one of the first games that comes to mind when people talk about open-ended game experiences. It’s technically open world, in that no part of your tiny town is blocked off from you, and it never pushes any goals on to you. But unlike most open world games, there’s no clear “end” to Animal Crossing. There’s no win or lose condition that ends the game, or any clear-cut way to progress. If you decide progressing means getting all of the villager pictures, that’s your prerogative, the game doesn’t mind at all.

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Like most sandbox games, Animal Crossing asks you to make your own fun, for the most part. But unlike the Grand Theft Autos and Saint’s Rows of the world, there are no missions, no bosses, no clear ways of measuring your progress in the world. You don’t get better, you don’t get further, you just continue existing in your tiny village. It’s distinctly un-gamey. Nintendo actually coined a term to describe Animal Crossing and its ilk: “non-game”. At the 2005 Game Developer’s Conference keynote, Nintendo president Satoru Iwata called titles like Brain Age and Nintendogs non-games because of their lack of “a winner, or even a real conclusion.” And even though Animal Crossing: New Leaf, the newest entry to the series, adds dozens of new tasks to do in your town, the core of the game remains the same. Choose how you want to measure your progression, or don’t. Just hang out for a while, no one’s going to stop you.

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Johann Sebastian Joust:

(Photo from the Johann Sebastian Joust press kit.)

(Photo from the Johann Sebastian Joust press kit.)

Including JS Joust on this list is double cheating, in that it’s neither a video game, nor is it even available to purchase as of writing. It’s played with PlayStation Move controllers linked to a computer playing selections from Bach’s concertos at different speeds. When the song is slow, the controller is very sensitive to slight movements, but when the music gets faster, you can move around more. The goal is to force the opponent to move their controller too much, causing the light on top to turn off.

But it’s not a “video game”, mostly because it doesn’t really have a “video” component. It may be played with game controllers, but even the developers, Die Gute Fabrik, call it a “no-graphics, digitally-enabled playground game.” It’s a game in the purest sense. Simple rules with clear winners and losers, and entirely free-form outside of that. Nothing in the rules says you can’t throw your shoes at other people, for example. JS Joust might not be a video game, but it does open the floor for discussion of more “digitally-enhanced” games, which, when you think about augmented reality games becoming more and more popular on iOS and Android devices, might soon become a much more crowded field than ever before.

(Photo from the Johann Sebastian Joust press kit.)

(Photo from the Johann Sebastian Joust press kit.)

Noby Noby Boy:

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Noby Noby Boy is...weird. It comes from the mind of Keita Takahashi, the creator of the cult-hit Katamari Damacy, which might explain some of its oddness. You play as Boy, a snake-like creature that gets longer as it eats things using either of his two mouths One’s on his face, one’s on his butt. And that’s pretty much it. You eat everyone and everything on a map, and grow longer and longer and longer, until Boy becomes an enormous, unwieldy snake monster, incapable of moving without bumping into one of his own colourful segments.

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Oh, there is one thing though. Boy gets bigger so he can give his length to Girl, a much larger snake monster hanging out on top of planet Earth. As she grows longer, she can reach other planets, unlocking more content for Boy to explore. Since Boy can’t do it alone, every single Noby Noby Boy player in the world contributes to Girl’s growth, and also reaps the rewards when she reaches a new planet. There are no personal goals, nor is there really any win or loss, like a traditional game, but there’s definitely progression, in a strange, totally impersonal way, where rewards are global, rather than individual. Noby Noby Boy isn’t an MMO, but hundreds of players were, for a time, all contributing to the same goal, without much of an end in sight. It’s strange, but it’s hard not to like a game where you can eat your own butt.

WarioWare, inc.: Mega Microgame$:

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If Animal Crossing is Nintendo’s poster-child for non-games, then WarioWare is the exact opposite. Playing WarioWare is basically playing “video games” in their purest form. Simple, five second affairs, with only one button, a directional pad, and a single command. Beat one, move on to the next. One second you’re shooting ducks in Duck Hunt, the next you’re being asked to choose the “praise” option from a menu. WarioWare takes for granted the idea that the player is experienced enough with the grammar of games that they’re able to figure out what do with one word and limited input.

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When the game presents you with a top down view of a girl with a gardening can and a plant, then commands you to “water!”, someone familiar with games would understand immediately that the top-down view means the girl is controlled with the d-pad, and the plant, as the only other sprite on screen is the target. WarioWare puts you through the ringer of platformers, RPGs, shooters, matching games, every kind of genre that’s playable in 5 seconds with one button and directional controls. It’s pure video game.

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At the same time, the games are incredibly short, and packed together tightly. While they constantly reference video games and gaming history, some people would hesitate to call them “video games” on their own. They’re microgames, sure, but they’re also distillations of video game in the simplest sense of the word. Like a reduction of the medium, they get rid of anything not explicitly required for a video game. Separated into its base elements, it’s a series of incredibly simple tasks without much in the way of reward other than more microgames, but taken as a gestalt, WarioWare throws game after game at you, asking you to use your familiarity with various genres and gaming history to keep on your toes. If nothing else, WarioWare is the gamiest game that’s ever gamed.


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Papers, Please. Papers, Please. Papers, Please.

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Papers, Please. Papers, Please. Papers, Please.

Papers Please.

A man comes to my desk, pudgy, short and desperate. It’s cold enough to freeze migrating birds midway through a flap of their wings, but he’s sweating. Bad sign. He gives me his passport, and his work permit, and to my surprise everything is in order. Approved. Stamp. Close. Toss.

As I hand them back, he starts to beg. He wants me to let his wife through, no matter what. They’re in danger, and a family should be together. I knew there was something else.

His wife is next. She doesn't have the right documentation. I shake my head and plant the DENIED stamp on her passport.  I have two warnings already this day. One more and I lose pay. I already can hardly pay for the heat in my home, and I’ve run out of savings. She disappears into the rejection line.

Papers Please.  

 

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This game is a job. Better put, it’s a highly refined disempowerment game, the exact opposite of a world-hopping military squad or the fantasy universe chosen one. At the best of times, I feel petty and small. At the worst, I’m snivelling and lash out at those nearest to me. And I loved it.

The game provides you will constant reminders of your insignificance. The communist republic of Arstotzka recently ended a war against Kolechia. The terrorists attempt to bomb Arstotzka to regain their rightful land. But this has nothing to do with you. Neither do the political games behind the daily headlines, which affect the game’s rules but rarely go beyond adding or removing challenge to the grind. The game affects a looming sense of dread that every decision could be the wrong one, and even the right ones could turn around and bite you.

Papers Please provides numerous workplace hazards. Not the terrorists, who blow themselves up on the other side of the street. That’s within my control. If I focus, I can keep their number down. And let’s be pragmatic. They blow themselves up once they’re crossed, not at the actual crossing. They can’t hurt me. The hazards come in form of the government and resistance. I have bribes to pay and I have bribes to take, all of which determines my allegiance. But who has time for politics when my wife is at home, sick and my children are hungry? I wish they would leave me alone. I have people to process. My job was desperate enough without these hawkish factions.

It’s ironic that in my attempt to sympathise with the border guard role, I grew detached from all the other characters. Occasionally, I despise visitors more, like the wife-beating football player and so I refuse them entry. But rarely do I feel like I have to let someone inside. When people tell me that they lost your papers or that they didn’t know the day’s rules, it’s easy. I reject you, or I get you arrested, depending on what my bosses are pressuring me to do. At the end of the day, I’ll do whatever’s needed so long as I don’t unexpectedly hear the tick-tok-tapping of the teletype machine.

In a way, I have a real power, to allow people the opportunity to work or start a new life. Yet, it’s not gratifying to let people through. People rarely thank you, and the game seems far more focused on just letting your survive than ever thriving - at least in my playthrough. Perhaps others were much better at their job than I was. More often I use my power to lash out, like a petulant child, intent on making sure others are having a just as a bad day as I am. There was a man who came to the border repeatedly with fake ID, not understanding the rules, and eventually I just rejected him even when he had the right documents. I received a warning immediately. I felt terrible, but not for long.

Part of the issue is that Papers Please gives you twisted rewards, like confirmation that your wife won’t die from disease, or that your children aren’t starving. There are no gold stars for trying hard. Purchasing upgrades to my work space feels useless, especially when my next day could be an utter failure, and I’ll have to dig into my savings.

Arrested Folks

Since I’ve spent about 600 words explaining how much misfortune I encountered in this game, why keep playing?  I had to ask myself this several times throughout the game. I’m not being paid. The gameplay is rote, and I don’t usually play games to feel like I’m doing hard work. Papers Please has a plot but it’s only a small part of the game. The reason is that ultimately, there is something engaging about misfortune. Papers Please creates strong emotions, even if they’re largely negative.  I felt hate, mistrust, fear, and frustration. And that’s incredibly valuable.

Consider this in comparison to the goal of the AAA game, our blockbusters in the industry. The Assassins Creeds, Call of Dutys and Battlefields which come out every year, and constantly try to up themselves. Better graphics. Bigger explosions. More dire plots.

Yet, these games have so constantly been trying to raise the stakes that they’re laughable in hindsight. Modern Warfare 3 has Russia invade all of Europe at once, while the main characters gallivant from one set piece to another. Each level in that game feels less valuable than the last because they’re equally dire. The world is about to blow up and yet there is no danger. A lot of that comes from the lack of character focus and the forgiving gameplay mechanics. If I died, I’d start inches from where I left off. But really, who cared if my character in that game died? They switch around so frequently that they’re impossible to distinguish. The game does an effective job of making me feel powerful. Everything explodes. I am the reckoner, and the destroyer. I felt like a hero - a hero in an incredibly boring world, where every problem was solved easily by a rifle. It was like being a child stepping on a world made of paper-mache.

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Assassins’ Creed faced a similar problem. At the end of Assassin’s Creed III the fate of the world hung in the balance, but the game was so focused on making the stakes impossibly high that it forgot to give the main character a personality. Assassins’ Creed literally gives the player godlike aspirations, but again, I don’t want to be a god in a when the world means nothing. Think about the phrase “saving the world” for a moment. A world is not a planet that happens to have people on it. The world is comprised of the people I love and care about, and they all happen to live on Earth. Saving the world in Assassin’s Creed felt like I had saved a lump of molten rock instead of a place that held billions of people.

When I finished Papers Please, in one sense, it felt like I saved the world. I didn’t manage to change much. I wasn’t even promoted for my efforts. My family survived though. So when the time came to stop playing Papers Please, I felt elated.

The family members have zero characterization, but because of the crushing depression of the gameplay, I was forced to imagine them. I don’t think everyone had the same reaction as me, but they could get sick and they needed food. In some sense these requirements meant I had to figure out why they needed food and why they would want heat. By a week into the game, I didn’t want my kids to die. Not just because the game would end, but because I didn’t like this platonic idea of starving children to die.

I’m never going to replay Papers Please. It’s too depressing. I had my experience with it, and I didn’t have fun - which is exactly the experience I was looking for. Papers Please creates a world that was both fascinating and distressing, and in some sense is comparable to one’s own life. As much as we’d like to imagine that our life consists of great moments - the birth of your first child, winning the hockey game, getting promoted - most of it is the rote repetition of the grind. And if that’s the world Papers Please was looking to emulate it did a horrifically good job.

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